Human Interactions

Turning 32 – Reflections on Success, Travel, Generalism and Relationships

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Posted on / by Alex Berger
Alex Berger Photographer Sunset

I waved goodbye to 31 and ushered in 32 in a hostel in central Beijing followed by a trans-continental flight to Europe. It still leaves me awestruck that I can wake up on one side of the world and traverse halfway around the globe in the blink of an eye.  Perhaps fitting given how fast 31 raced by. As some of you have come to expect, every year I celebrate my birthday by sitting down, reflecting and rambling a bit about some of the things I’ve learned over the previous year. Sometimes these are musings still being digested, other times they are topics I’m more thoroughly confident about. Having just glanced through my post from this time last year I can’t help but feel a bit shocked at how recent, raw, and in-process those reflections still feel.

I hope you’ll enjoy these thoughts and take them for what they are –  an attempt to share the world as I see it and how I relate to it. You can view my 31st birthday post here, my more detailed 30th birthday post here, my musings on turning 29 here, or 28 here. As well as a long-forgotten blog post written on my 23 birthday (yeah, I’ve been blogging that long) which you can view here.

Success and the Tribulations of a Generalist

Since I was a child I’ve looked up to and aspired to the ideal of a Renaissance Man. In the past I’ve mentioned that one of the role models I’ve always been inspired by was the fictional starship captain Jean-Luc Picard. I also draw from and have been influenced heavily by my parents, both of whom are wonderfully erudite, down to earth and gifted generalists.  At the core of each of these individuals, philosophies and characters is a fundamental driving curiosity which casts a wide net and, while all fundamentally interconnected, dilutes the attention an individual can dedicate to any one area. This dilution tends to trigger a lot of confusion and I think also leads to a mis-characterization of different types of generalists. Distilled down to its simplest form I’ve come to see it as two types: the bold generalist who is someone who has a voracious curiosity and devours new and diverse knowledge vs. the timid generalist, who is someone who operates in a state of paralyzed fear and limited curiosity resulting in bland mediocrity and a tendency to self sabotage before moving on.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that not only fails to make the distinction between bold and timid generalists, but also views and speaks to generalists in general with a level of disdain. In recent years as the focus in education and business has pivoted to STEM, the traditional domain of the generalist, the humanities, has suffered significantly. A cultural narrative has evolved that defines value, career worth, and success in terms of near absolutes tailored heavily towards specialization.  As individuals we’re ushered towards picking our area, specializing and becoming the very best. Part and parcel of that, also inherently includes defining our vision of success and self worth from that ability to specialize, to have a committed plan over an extended period of time which moves us along a carefully calculated course.

The benefits to this are clear. It’s more easily digestible and we all have friends or individuals we look up to and/or evaluate ourselves against who have known since they were six that they were destined to become a thoracic surgeon or molecular biologist specializing in cell expression. Often, these individuals invest significant time and effort in the process of attaining those goals, and the progression is easy to track and quantify. Which is not, of course, to say this is only the case in STEM fields. It applies equally to the prima ballerina or world’s premier expert in Etruscan sculpture. For many of these individuals, a singular driving purpose is the essential fuel that lights the spark of their soul and ignites their passion.

The bold generalist, on the other hand, faces a frustrating quandary and constant crisis of self-worth. The old adage “Jack of all trades, master of none” laced with its hints of mild disdain embodies the challenge these individuals, myself included, face. The single-minded dedication required for absolute mastery or systemic and formulaic completion of tasks to attain recognition/pay/mastery come with fundamental and often unavoidable opportunity costs that contrast with the burning curiosity that perpetually tugs me and my interests in a multitude of directions. It is this diversity of interests, passions, topics and knowledge which – almost counter intuitively – is the end goal for me. The driving desire to have the most complete and in-depth knowledge possible across all of the available topics, which in turn helps me better understand each topic more completely, within context.

In this way, I suppose I AM a specialist, just not the “right kind” of specialist. I’ve just chosen to replace learning the periodic table, or every muscle in the body with similar ingredients and strands of knowledge.   The value that I derive from this is the ability to make connections and to contextualize the knowledge I encounter in a more three-dimensional and non-linear context. Unfortunately, by it’s very nature, that context and process does not compute directly to a more formulaic structure or dedicated advancement within a pre-established system of protocols. By this, I in no way mean one approach is superior to the other. Quite the opposite, the two are inherently complementary. The very foundation I operate upon is provided for by specialists and requires their focused and dedicated deep dive into their topic of expertise.

But, by that same stroke, I’ve come to accept and hope that in sharing this post, I help those of you reading and reflecting who may find yourselves in similar positions, that the value and level of my success and accomplishments is not diminished by not conforming to a specialist’s structure. Similar to the fibers in a muscle, if you take one, isolate it, and evaluate it purely on it’s own merit – it seems weak, feeble, limited and incomplete. Which, of course, is true. It’s only when you evaluate that fiber as part of a band of fibers, operating as part of an integrated muscular system that you draw on and understand the full value and accomplishment of that individual fiber.

As I turn 32, what this means for me as I look both ahead and backwards, is that I can finally confidently answer the question: Am I successful? A question that has terrified me and I’ve struggled with since my mid-teens.  I have not become the Jacques Cousteau of my generation, the Neil Armstrong, or Sergey Brin.  Not only is that perfectly ok, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thus far I’ve crafted a life that has rewarded and fed my voracious curiosity while enabling my passions as a bold generalist. That’s not to say it hasn’t brought with it career success and that I don’t have a level of craftsmanship and perfectionism to my work and pursuits. It just means that the rubric I grade myself against is fundamentally different than what our cultural narrative throughout western society aggressively pushes for. Ultimately it means coming to terms with the nagging doubt of, “sure, I’ve accomplished, but what could I accomplish if I ever truly focused my abilities on one thing?”.

It sounds like a simple and silly thing and yet at the same time I know that it constantly gives friends endless pain and self doubt. Sadly, I also suspect that the related emotional conflict has also led several friends to commit suicide. There is a delicate and difficult balance to strike when you harbor the drive to be a specialist, but have it unleashed and dispersed across a wide net of interests. The reward itself is the knowledge, but at the same time, the cost is a disconnect in understanding and a fundamental challenge in re-defining the terms by which we define our personal success, priorities and goals.

Interestingly you see some of this at work within elements of the silicon valley technorati. These individuals who have excelled relatively early in life and who were, initially, either heavily oriented towards a specialist approach or generalists who forced themselves to conform for the sake of operating within the system laid out for them. Only now, with the success criteria satisfied – millions made, companies built and sold, and “success” defined – these same individuals are now drifting, struggling, and lost as they work diligently to re-tool themselves and their minds. From meditation to a heavy push towards stoicism most have pivoted towards chasing that Renaissance Man ideal through a diversified approach of introspection, curiosity, and reflection.

To this end, I’ve come to utterly disdain the well-meaning but deeply damaging question we post to children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  For years I worried when I changed degrees, or left a wonderful job opportunity behind, that I was fundamentally sabotaging and sacrificing my future. That I was betraying the people who believed in me and that I was throwing away years of work. Dad has always told me, “Buy yourself out of the system”.  I’ve finally come to accept that the meaning there is much more than merely the monetary logistics. It’s the intellectual and emotional capital to define success on my own terms and to accomplish and achieve the lifestyle and life-experience I want.

The reality is that I am successful, that I am happy, and that I am advancing and evolving the essence of who I am. That I am refining my ethos constantly, shaping and evolving who I am and what I value to better align with my goals, while taking care to nurture and understand the pathos of how I engage with those around me and as importantly with myself. All the while, my foundation remains rooted in a logos that is the engine which drives my burning curiosity.

So, to those friends reading this, especially those still studying and feeling deeply uncertain about the future, it’s ok. Dedicate yourself to being good at what you do, chase your passion, do the grunt work where necessary, but don’t feel as though you’re locked in, treading water, or not accomplishing things just because your interests are varied. So often we get the career advice, “find your passion”, “find your true calling”, “chase your dream”. For a subset of us, it’s absolute horseshit. There is no one passion. There is no one pure dream and in many cases to realize whatever we would latch onto to fill that role would ultimately crush the joy turning it into dust. If your true calling and passion is the pursuit of knowledge, curiosity, and constant exploration across a wealth of topics and areas, then that’s wonderful. It’s a successful pursuit.

IQ vs. EQ

Early this year I caught a podcast in which I was introduced to the concept of learned Emotional Quotient (EQ). It was outlined as a balance and secondary aspect to IQ (Intelligence Quotient). One of the most interesting elements in the conversation included the high IQ / low EQ individual discussing how he had to teach himself and nurture his EQ.  We often take it for a given that in many cases high IQ / low EQ individuals simply are as they are. Shows like Elementary (Sherlock Holmes in general) focus on exploring this relationship, often pairing an extremely high IQ individual with a well-balanced mid-level IQ/EQ individual who helps facilitate this education. From autism to nurture-based conditions or just the frustration of a high IQ and mind that operates in a fundamentally different way, the need to define and explore the EQ side of the equation has fascinated me.

With my degrees focusing in communication and cognition, the challenges faced by extremely high IQ individuals and parallel ways of perception, thinking and communicating have always fascinated me. There’s not much to add here, beyond encouraging you to consider your own EQ and then to use that as a way of better understanding the people you meet. I also tend to think it has far re-echoing implications for questions of ethics, cultural norms and find it tends to be directly linked to my interest and belief that empathy, not religion, is the driving force that morality comes from.

Imposter Syndrome

Though directly related to the bold generalist I mentioned above, one of the other areas that I’ve focused on working to counteract and combat heavily in recent years is impostor syndrome – that fundamental nagging doubt that both drives us but also leaves us constantly swinging in states of frustrated flux. The sensation that we’re impostors, that somehow we’ve fooled all those around us into thinking we’re more capable, more gifted, more knowledgeable than we actually are and that at any minute that mistake will be revealed. I’s an inherent challenge for most of us, especially those who have a relatively well balance IQ and EQ. While I know it’s normal, especially in peers, many of whom I’ve had numerous conversations with and who are individuals who I have the utmost respect and admiration for, it’s no less easy to deal with.

Over the past couple of years, particularly since the grueling and humbling job search process I went through in 2014, I’ve focused heavily on being diligent in categorizing my successes (recording them and making an actual list I can reference and refer back to) and stopping the emotional undercurrents that feed my own impostor syndrome in its tracks. Working to catch myself when I start to undermine myself or second guess, focusing instead on tallying my competencies. Acknowledging it for what it is. Compartmentalizing it. Using it as a natural and useful gut check to ensure I AM doing the work I need to, to prepare myself, and then to dismiss the nagging uncertainty. The result has been a fundamental shift in how I’m centered, respond to issues, and in my own belief in myself and my capability. Which isn’t to stay it’s not still a daily struggle. But, it’s now just one thread in a tapestry of motivations and inspirations which serve to push me forward towards new endeavors, challenges and opportunities.

I find one of the most nefarious elements of imposter syndrome is the utter incoherence of it. I see it most often with my photography where I can over the course of a week get featured by National Geographic and then just a few days later entertain thoughts of abandoning photography completely out of frustration and dissatisfaction with photos I’ve captured using artificial reference points or an off-day shooting. Maintaining an archive that I can reference, scroll through, and remind myself with is a wonderful tool for stopping those negative behaviors early. It’s also something that many success-oriented people tend to be extremely bad at creating as they are perpetually chasing the next task or achievement.

Time and Travel

When I moved to Scandinavia, many people asked me why I chose a Nordic country over somewhere like Italy or Spain. One of the primary reasons I gave was that while I love visiting both countries, the pacing and elements of the mentality can drive me absolutely crazy. As I’ve spent more time in Asia and Africa over the last few years, I’ve started to become fascinated with the perception of time and how it shapes and explains many of the aspects that I find most frustrating and challenging in non-linear time-oriented societies.

During my recent visit to Tanzania and Zanzibar one topic that often came up was the local’s lack of concern over punctuality and the frustratingly slow pace that often accompanied services and certain behaviors. Tasks that could have been completed in one trip with a bit of planning, such as serving drinks at a restaurant, were completed in four separate trips. I was also captivated by some of the street vendors. One man, selling 6 coconuts on a back street near our hostel, spent 6+ hours sitting, seemingly completely comfortable doing absolutely nothing. He’d periodically wave at a passer by, check his phone or nap. But otherwise, in general,  he was comfortable as he was. With roles reversed I would have rapidly gotten agitated, had to find some sort of stimulation and/or gone rapidly insane.

In the last three months I’ve been fascinated by this interplay between time and perception and comfort. While I’m quite happily over-stimulated and have no desire to change that, I am interested in understanding the impact that fundamentally changing the mental process of how we experience, process and relate to time has on all other aspects of a culture. From topics like punctuality to questions of efficiency – how we perceive and are shaped by our relationship with time seems to be far more pervasive than I ever previously imagined. It’s also given me an entirely different lens through which to relate, understand, and engage with different cultures and I suspect, is a un-identified trigger for a lot of traveler’s angst.

Relationships

In many ways this year has been quite static for me. Everything I’ve spoken to in my 30th and 31st birthday reflection posts still holds true and are in play. I find myself struggling to carve out the time to date properly. This has been an on-going challenge. After so many years spent “single”, carving out regular time for a proper relationship requires taking a lot of other important areas of focus off the table. That’s not a bad thing, or something I’m unwilling to do. It’s just an added complexity which I think often gets talked about for “career women”, but which applies and is fundamentally relevant for both genders. Commitment to a relationship, especially as a man who values relationships and equity, means compromise and sacrifice on both parts.

Women and Ownership of Destructive Behaviors

With the recent election and everything that has gone with it, from attacks on Planned Parenthood to the conversations about sexual assault sparked by Trump, I’ve attempted to double down on many of my feminist positions and my advocacy for more robust sex education and general reduced tolerance for tired and deeply damaging sexism. You can look to my other channels for more on that and should understand that I put the majority of the onus on men. In this context, for this post, though I want to focus on one area which has frustrated and disturbed me for years. I’ve also come to realize recently that it also negatively impacts my dating behaviors and is one of the root sources of a lot of the frustrations I run into.

In general, I’ve always taken a stricter than normal approach to romantic interactions. Yes means yes. No means no. End of story. With rare exception, no doesn’t mean try harder… Try again later… Try tomorrow… Wait 10 minutes and try again. The same often applies to the conversations I have in the lead up to different types of relationships. Yes means yes, casual means casual, exclusive means exclusive, etc. and with that comes a strong expectation that the individual wants to be there, and if at any point they don’t, they leave. Respect and that level of commitment is fundamental and it’s why I also have such strong objections and disgust about infidelity and attention/cheating power games caused by deception and ambiguity.

Time and time again, I run into two issues: 1) Women assume I’m not interested because after my initial expression of interest I haven’t circled back and pressed more aggressively or repeatedly. There’s some nuance here, but speaking in general terms it’s often the case. 2) Conversations and reflections on my relationships have demonstrated that it is often the case that my partners assume that when we define or outline the context of a potential relationship, I’m not being completely transparent and stating my intentions. Rather that I’m just feeding them a line, encouraging them to “win me” to “try harder” or that I’m just playing things cool.

Diving a bit deeper, this is why this matters and frustrates me and why the topic is an area where I want to see women take more responsibility. Particularly, I would love to see a pivot with women acknowledging their responsibility to approach relationships in an open and equitable manner. While it’s flattering to be chased and there’s nothing wrong with flirtation and playful banter, far too often across all cultures, but especially within many romance cultures, yes means yes and no…well….no means no sometimes, try harder other times, and yes but not now others.  Which, quite frankly, is absolute bullshit and needs to change. It fosters and facilitates mixed signals, deception, and enables an abuse and rape culture.

When I raise this frustration, women often jump to justify it. Either highlighting that it’s wonderful and flattering to be chased/a part of the game or that it’s just ingrained in some of the cultures. To the first, tough shit, I don’t care if you run down main street naked and pass out on a park bench, you should be safe from assault and the simple onus is on men not to assault, rape or abuse. But, at the same time, yes needs to mean yes and no needs to mean no. This isn’t to say that Yes means complete surrender or commitment to the full range of sexual and relational aspects, but it should be discussed that Yes means yes, with an * of conversation about where things stop and when they continue. I’m not saying yes means yes forever. Not at all. No, also doesn’t have to be permanent, but once you’ve communicated that no? The onus falls on you to explicitly communicate the change. As far as the second, cultural, defense – tough shit. Having sexually predatory or rape-ish behavior as an ingrained part of your culture doesn’t make it acceptable. The consequences and emotional/physical damage is just as real, if not worse due to a cultural lack of support.

Why does it matter? This issue with clear and open consent encourages ambiguity and it makes one of the most basic and fundamental aspects of the relational/sexual dynamic unclear. It’s dangerous, for all parties involved. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen women complain about a guy, then later in the evening kiss him in response to his constant advances. When questioned about the disparity it was often, “just to make him go away”.  In other cases the banter unfolds with an attempt of some sort. Then the usual cycle ensues. He presses. She says no. He doubles down with a why, or attempts to negotiate. She says no, but remains. Fast forward 20 minutes and his persistence has paid off.

This is, of course, reinforced by social norms. In the US the pressure not to come across as “too easy” and things like the third date rule indoctrinate both genders from an early age to adhere to these approaches. But FFS, the world has changed and it’s time we do. Men and women alike can put as much pressure as we want on men to act with respect, but at the end of the day what many of those young men see is actions and those actions speak far louder than words. The result? The result is that when that no actually means- no, that the two people are no longer speaking the same language. And if that no meant maybe, and that maybe could be twisted or forced into a yes… if the consistent advances and poor behavior (which I acknowledge needs to be corrected) pans out? The behavior is reinforced, and rewarded, exactly the opposite intention. Or perhaps that no, intentionally meant maybe, and that maybe led to a yes, which could lead to a relationship, you’ve built the entire relationship on a deception, and being dishonest with your partner. There may be arguments here about uncertainty, but at the end of the day both men and women need to own their decisions and take responsibility for communicating clearly. If someone isn’t willing to do that, is that someone you want to be involved with?

So, beyond the general issue with it endangering women at large and fundamentally undermining efforts to reduce and aggressively persecute sexual assault, it also has frustrating implications for those of us who are committed to avoiding as much of that harmful ambiguity, deception and shady bullshit as possible. It makes actually finding, facilitating and initiating a respectful relationship that little bit more difficult and it simultaneously makes women distrustful of definitive statements.

My challenge for the women reading this who aren’t already married is simple. Take ownership of the behavioral aspects you can control and work to evaluate and if needed change your behaviors. The call to men is the same, and women definitively face more obstacles and social pressure in doing so, but it is essential to make yes mean yes, make no mean no, and flirt within the confines of those simple boundaries. While you’re at it, help protect your friends by doing the same. I’d also suggest watching some of these Sexplanations videos, which, while none directly cover this topic regularly discuss the importance of proper communication, consent, and are informative about a variety of “taboo” subjects which can lead one to feel more confident and ready to discuss or engage in the relational process.

Final Thoughts

This past year has been another wonderful one. I’ve been challenged and stimulated at work, had David, my brother, join me in Copenhagen, and continued to travel extensively. This post was delayed a few days as I’m penning it, still jet-lagged and freshly returned from my first visit to China.  The year also included a return to Thailand with David, as well as a number of country-firsts including my visit to Myanmar, 23 days of solo travel in Tanzania and Zanzibar, a 4 day solo road trip through Iceland’s west fjords, and my continued exploration of Denmark.

I find myself continuing to love Denmark and my lifestyle in Copenhagen, surrounded by incredible friends and I am constantly exposed to wonderful people.  My photography has also had some wonderful highlights over the last year, including a number of new features. I recently launched a web-shop for prints which you’ll hear more about soon and the reception to my Denmark 101 podcast which joins my videos continues to be wonderfully supportive.

Thank you all so much for continuing to support, inspire, and challenge me.

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

5 Comments

  • Agra
    March 28, 2017

    Very interesting stoy of your life. its really inspirational.

    Reply
  • Kent
    May 10, 2017

    Came across your blog while preparing for a two week trip around Prague-Vienna-Budapest. Travelling light meant asking the question “are flip-flops necessary for staying at a hostel?”. Your post appeared and answered that question succinctly.

    Glancing at the sidebar, this post piqued my interest as I’m similar in age & approaching another year and consider myself a ‘bold’ generalist. Your open, expressive thoughts on the subjects you chose to write about reflected many of the items that I constantly consider valuable to living a expansive, loving life.

    Cheers for sharing; it’s good to know there are others out there living their lives pursuing their curiosities, moving to a society chosen to be the best match (I’ve been to Denmark three times and plan to move there as well), and considering how relationship standards are evolving in our timeline.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      May 12, 2017

      Thanks for the kind words and comment Kent! Sounds like you’ve got a fantastic trip ahead of you! Good to hear the post was useful, and hopefully you’ve got a cheap pair ready to protect your feet 😉

      Let me know if you find yourself making the plunge and heading to Denmark more long-term. Always happy to share my experiences getting settled. Safe travels and open roads. Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  • Jade D’sa
    May 30, 2017

    So inspirational! I’m in my mid 20s and can relate to the part where you’ve changed degrees and careers. I’m trying to define success for myself too!

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      June 10, 2017

      Fantastic to hear! Hope it all goes smoothly and where it doesn’t, embrace the opportunity to learn! It will lead to added happiness!

      Reply

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